Gini Dietrich

The Art of Persuasion, or PR, Cannot Be Automated

By: Gini Dietrich | April 21, 2015 | 
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The Art of Persuasion, or PR, Cannot Be AutomatedBy Gini Dietrich

I’ve often lamented that if I were to start all over again and really think about (versus sort of just doing it) starting a business, I would not create a service organization. (I also would not name it after myself, but that’s another story for a different time.)

PR firm is made up of human beings, where the product is our brains.

Do you know how hard it is to scale a business that is reliant on people’s brains?

In a product business, if you want more widgets, you just make them. It isn’t reliant on a human being’s brain.

Sure, there needs to be a person to run the machine to make the widgets. You might even need to hire two or three more people—and buy two or three more machines—to create 100,000 more widgets. But, to scale 100,000 more brains is impossible.

Well, not impossible, but you get my drift.

Scalable Technology in PR

That’s why, in February, I jotted down in my “blog ideas” notebook, “Penn’s blog post on PR automation.”

I wanted to be sure to get back to it, but it was published in the middle of our scavenger hunt, which is why I didn’t write about it then.

What started this conversation is Tom Forenski wrote in the Silicon Valley Watcher:

PR’s challenge is that it is an artisanal, hand-crafted service operating within a brave new digital media world that rewards scale. Ad agencies, SEO services, Facebook, Google, Twitter, know how to scale their promotional work through technology.

Where are PR’s scalable technologies of persuasion?

There are some scalable technologies in PR:

But you cannot automate the human relationship piece of PR…the technology of persuasion.

Pitching Cannot Be Automated

As an industry, we certainly try.

My inbox was stuffed full of Tax Day pitches right up until April 15. It was a joy to read them every day, in between trying to find the emails from clients and my team (where is that sarcasm font?!).

That is all automated persuasion. And it doesn’t work.

Not only would I never cover Tax Day anything, an unsolicited email from a PR pro rarely works.

It is all about relationships and it takes human beings to do that.

Read Spin Sucks. Pitch me (or better, pitch our content manager) on tips or tools to help a PR pro do their job. I’ll likely take that unsolicited email.

But that takes a human being to read the blog, figure out what makes sense for our readers, and craft a customized pitch.

Persuasion cannot be automated.

The Art of Persuasion is Reliant on Humans

Trust me, if I could figure out a way to scale this business without a human’s brain as the key product, I would do it.

There certainly are agencies around the blog who have scaled human beings and their brains. But, even then, the largest PR firm in the world has only 5,300 employees.

Based on their revenues, that’s $146,000 per employee.

If we take one of the examples that Forenski used—Facebook—and compare it, they produce $13,551,473 per employee.

Which business would you rather have?

The one that produces $150,000 per employee or the one that produces more than $13 million per employee?

As much as we would like it to be so, the art of persuasion—the art of relationships—cannot be automated.

photo credit: Shutterstock 

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Well said, Gini! This is exactly why I’m glad I don’t work for my previous employer anymore. They were trying so hard to pretend they figured out the “magic secret” to PR automation. You can’t automate human interactions no matter how hard you try. It’s a shame that lots of people fell for that, too.

  • Lara Wellman

    I recently helped put together an event for a client and the invitations to the event came directly from the business. I followed up with a bunch of the people who were invited personally to see if they were coming and someone who said she didn’t think she could make it changed her mind and re-arranged her schedule when she realized that I was involved. I thought it was a good event with or without me 🙂 , but it was a great point about relationships and how important it is to someone to have someone they trust vouch for something.

  • I am amazed and don´t understand (honestly) why businesses, marketers, PR pros … forget to put themselves in their clients shoes. I get you have to deliver results, you have a lot of work and many clients to answer, but stop and think for a second if you would like to be treated like a robot? You wouldn´t, would you? Then why do it in the first place?
    Take the time to know your client/audience and even colleagues and boss and build a relationship. It´s common sense!

  • Alex P Acton

    Great post, Gini. I actually just finished a book on automation last night, and your comments really hit home with everything the book missed. There are certainly things that can be automated well, like analytics. But until we’re way further down the AI road, judgement and emotional intelligence are uniquely human. The real power of marketing and PR automation is that it can help humans make better decisions. It lets us spend less time on complicated market analysis and more time building relationships, thinking creatively and applying the automated insights to reality. I really wish reps would stop pitching me automated solutions as a fix-all answer and start selling them in the context of how they’ll help us work smarter.

  • True, true, true. I am sure this is small scale compared to what many of you deal with but now that I have the “authority” (?) to put a blog post up every day on a specific site, I have already created a category in my head called “Hey! Look at my cool infographic!” // I am sure these go to MANY recipients simultaneously and it’s such a shotgun approach it makes me chuckle.

  • ladylaff

    Like JRHalloran, I also worked for a PR firm that thought our business could be automated (one of the partners had previously managed a chocolate bar factory production line). Indeed PR has meagre profit margins compared to tech, but on the other hand it’s comforting to know us humans are still useful for some damn thing! By setting up our company I discovered that much of what I used to do in larger PR firms was what I will diplomatically refer to as ‘non value added’ (100 page proposals; massive ‘activity’ reports; drama meetings). By streamlining admin, fixing broken process and focusing on a specific industry where we are known experts – we managed to raise margins, client and personal satisfaction. There’s always more to optimise, which is why professional forums like Spin Sucks are invaluable!

  • ladylaff “drama meetings” – those must have been interesting (and stress inducing)

  • Now take the problem of scaling a PR firm and apply it to a solo practitioner. Interestingly, when I went out on my own years ago I met with an agency head who said the most a solo pro can expect to make (at that time) was about $140,000 — the precise per-employee number you came up with!
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and one way we can scale is through training. Instead of advising a client one-on-one, you’re teaching a bunch in a room. And to scale it further, creating online courses where you sink basically a one-time investment and continue to reap revenues down the road.
    Though I have to say “monetizing” my content in that way leaves me a little cold because, as you say, it leaves out much of the human element (live interaction with audiences).

  • steve_dodd

    True enough, Gini!  I believe it’s important to also connect the “Widget” world with the “Art of Persuasion” in that without “persuasion”, people wouldn’t be buying the Widgets. Perhaps the revenue imbalance is created by the fact that most haven’t connected this fundamental concept?

  • ladylaff

    biggreenpen ladylaff oh yes, we regularly met in to transform molehills into mountains – a great use of time! 🙂

  • ladylaff biggreenpen That is so completely a great blog post topic — it could be fun. You have to get something out of all those drama meetings LOL. Of course when I wrote about that kind of thing my office was not especially amused so you may need to adopt a pen name. 🙂

  • But Facebook only has like $3-5 revenue per user of their service. And could disappear tomorrow if we flee it like we did myspace (one day we will).

    You can’t automate relationships. It is why social media isn’t scalable and for massive consumer brands their investment in ‘talking with customers’ will always be minimal because they would have to hire to many people to talk with everyone and it would be negative ROI.

    But I am thinking we need a few Gini-Bots!

  • JamieNRutter

    Love everything about this!

    What do you think about tools like InkyBee that help identify people to start creating relationships with?

  • Alright ginidietrich I think this comes back to one of the first questions I ever asked you. 

    While some aspects of PR many not be automated (or at least easily or the way you might think), what’s stopping you from letting go of those two letters and focusing on that thing I’m not smart enough to know what to call it, that blends these business transacting communications more effectively?

    Even if that isn’t an option, is there absolutely no opportunity to automate any part of the PR process with monetary value tied to it? I would have to think there is. 

    If you are able to identify that automation (education) stream you can then place a higher value on the service (artisan) stream which is causing you to readily have a brown paper bag near your desk. 

    Software, Education, Service, Sponsorship. 

    What is stopping a service company from offering software along side that service? Ideally augmenting it. Or a software company from offering high end service? 

    Who said we only get to pick one, why not build a nice sturdy table with a leg from each?

  • The idea of scaling the business, I get it’s about business – what minimizes cost while maximizing profits. That’s why people want to buy an ‘automation’ solution, a one-time expenditure they can set and forget while counting the money that piles up. It does not exist.
    Every enterprise will have moving parts of some kind. Every business endeavor or construct, it’s gonna need resources, humans – salary sucking, lunch room stinking up, jamming the copier w/out fixing it humans – are the life blood of doing, of things getting done. 
    Now I’ll argue that PR is more than publicity and pitching; Public Relations is much more than persuasion and reputation and then turn around and TOTALLY agree with you while stating it (sometimes) doesn’t matter. I can put my mind to its best use, come up with fantabulous ideas and execute to a tee – been there done that and am revamping my career to do something else. Why? If what I do doesn’t also serve in making a better widget, better service, better employees, a better business, I’m not doing my job. If TPTB only care about promotion, as quickly and cheaply as automation allows, if their end game is that news story or that blogger’s impression or some ‘like’ on SM instead of the actual business or service that’s being promoted, it’s all for not. That’s my mind, that’s where I am and no, it cannot be done by programming and algorithms. This is where I refer everyone to Despair’s raison d’etre: http://www.despair.com/motivation.html aka when it can be automated, we’re all out of jobs. FWIW.

  • SusynEliseDuris

    Great post. Yep, we can’t automate PR or persuasion or we get back to that no-focus mass emailing crap that many of us get, still, which is unfortunate. It’s all about a one-to-one focused conversation – build trust, persuasion will follow.

  • RobBiesenbach scale is relative. In consumer goods and things like Facebook you have a small number of people generating a ton of product that brings in sometimes only pennies per transaction. Or you can have a small number of people work on a huge project. What if your ideas when implemented could make a big company 7 or 8 figures in profits. That is how the securities industry and the movies works.

    I have learned the same advice is worth different values based on how big the client is. But implementation also costs more the bigger the client …usually.

  • SusynEliseDuris Tax Day! You know you want to cover Tax Day!

  • 3HatsComm I always love it when you comment, Davina. You make me want to write boatloads of content with you. Thank you.

  • JoeyGiangola The only reason *I* don’t let the two letters go is because no one has another name for it. So, rather than fight to change the name, I fight to change the perception that people have about what we do. Also, it makes zero sense for me to call it something else, when everyone and their brothers will search “PR” to find articles like this.

  • JamieNRutter I love InkyBee because it helps you find the influencers. But it does not build the relationships for you. That’s up to you…and that’s what is wrong with how we use the tools. We expect them to do the work for us.

  • Howie Goldfarb I would LOVE a few Gini-Bots!

  • steve_dodd You know, when the economy tanked, we lost most of our clients because they couldn’t see the value in keeping on a communications firm when things were so tight. Except GE…they lowered our retainer, but they kept us on because they knew, when people were ready to buy again, they needed to be front and center. And they also knew the only way to do that was with PR.

  • RobBiesenbach I feel like you’re in my brain. RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF IT! That said, wait ’til you see what I’m launching on Thursday. You’ll laugh.

  • ladylaff How does one go from managing a chocolate bar factory line to owning a PR firm?

  • biggreenpen Bahahahaahah! That is SO TRUE! LOL!!

  • Alex P Acton Ohhhhh! What was the book?!

  • Corina Manea Corina, you win comment of the day.

  • Lara Wellman That is so true, Lara! I would totally rearrange my schedule to be at an event I knew you were part of. Hands down.

  • JRHalloran Look, if I could figure it out and it worked really well and it scaled, I’d do it. But I can’t figure out how you automate relationships.

  • SusynEliseDuris

    ginidietrich Ugh – don’t remind me about the IRS, CA Franchise Tax Board and my accountant – they are OFF the Christmas list…

  • ginidietrich Ha-ha! The call is coming … FROM INSIDE YOUR HOUSE!!!

  • SusynEliseDuris LOL!! I wonder if they get to stay on anyone’s Christmas list?

  • RobBiesenbach CREEPY!

  • SusynEliseDuris

    ginidietrich Ha Ha! True that!!

  • InspectionsTroy

    ginidietrich you taught me that a couple years back. Best advice ever.

  • ginidietrich

    InspectionsTroy Really?!

  • InspectionsTroy

    ginidietrich Yes Gini you did. I learned many things from following you.

  • ginidietrich

    InspectionsTroy ❤️

  • josgovaart

    Krusemeijer ginidietrich is right.

  • josgovaart

    Krusemeijer ginidietrich that’s why I don’t believe in newswires.

  • ginidietrich

    josgovaart Krusemeijer Among other things

  • ginidietrich are they mutually exclusive? You’re assuming you have to stop writing about PR to do that instead of passing the torch when the time is right. That of course is if you allowed the two to start running at the same time?

    Also, you didn’t answer my last question.

  • As with the human heart we can automate PR to pump out content as well as nourish or stimulate the brain with data curation but it will continue to be the art (humanizing) of PR that will be needed to connect (relate) the emotion of heart to the devotion of the brain.

  • Alex P Acton

    It’s called The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr. It’s decent but pretty pessimistic about the role of automation.

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  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Thank you!

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  • DorothyCrenshaw

    Just caught this (late) on PRDaily, which is why I need to subscribe 😀  I always enjoy Tom Foremski…every industry needs a bomb-thrower! And I so agree that PR hasn’t and probably never will command the valuations of other marketing sectors – and I can’t bring  myself to completely regret it. (See my post with a cogent comment  from Chris Graves. http://crenshawcomm.com/can-pr-scale/ ) But, from the look of my inbox lately, there are many startups who are determined to automate whatever can be automated in our business!

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